It’s exam time. Until mid-May, I had a private student called Susan. I went to her house every Saturday to tutor her in English. She attended a Catholic girls’ school from Monday to Friday, and church on Sunday with her family. She had a friend called Bethlehem.
The Lord giveth…
Susan’s mother always spoke to me warmly, ending with the phrase God bless. They gave me a box of chocolates for Christmas. I don’t get many presents these days. It all harked back to another time, when the world was nicer. Susan is itself an old-fashioned name. This child will be dependable and well-behaved. I thought she might be shy. She was certainly quiet, answering little and volunteering even less. But don’t forget why I was there. She wasn’t very good at English.
She had a different name which only her family used. Suzanne. I remembered the Old Testament story. Susanna, a young virgin, is set upon by two lascivious old men. I mentioned it to her. No answer. I called her Suzy. No answer either.
Arriving for tuition was like stepping into a filthy cave. The dining room curtain was always drawn and the windows shut. The place stank of bad air and old food. On the table, chairs and floor I could see what the past week’s snacks had been, and the week before. It was impressive in a way, like those modern sculptures which are real heaps of rubbish. An art gallery cleaner threw out one of these sculptures. He thought it was some rubble left by builders. These are finished works, however, like a painting. Susan’s piece evolved.
She started poking at the rubbish when I came. Not before I came. Maybe I wouldn’t come. She didn’t want to tidy up for nothing. In cleaning terms, she was a virgin, hesitating with each prod and wipe as if it was new to her, something which she didn’t normally do, or didn’t want to do, or both. If there had been a way for her to clean up all the different kinds of trash without touching anything, she would have embraced it with both arms.
Unsure about the cleaning, she didn’t trust the old man either. My jokes are sometimes funny, sometimes not, but they usually make girls laugh. At times, I suppose, the giggles are just polite. I do annoy some people. Susan was one of them. She never laughed. She just looked uncomfortable, or else replied, “That’s a weird thing to say.”
When she turned sixteen, I asked her if she had a boyfriend, an admirer on the bus to school, someone. She gave me a coy smile and shook her head. OK. She might not have broken the Seventh Commandment, but number eight is showing cracks, along with number nine.
…and the Lord taketh away
In our final lesson, Susan said she didn’t have the money to pay me. Could I come back some other time and get it? I said I wasn’t leaving without the money. She rang her mother, who wasn’t home, repeated what I'd said, and listened to the reply. Then she pulled the cash out of her pocket.
Of all the garbage piled on Susan’s table, the donut container was my favourite. A big, plastic box for thirty-two donuts. Only one was left, sitting there for weeks, looking like a failure. A sweet little thing with a hole at the centre.